Objectivist speaker dismisses faith, counterd with his own fanaticism

By Ryan McCarl

The terrorists of 9/11 represent the “essence” of religion, according to Andrew Bernstein, and “the quest for heaven leads to hell on earth.”

On Thursday evening, the Objectivist Club brought in Bernstein, professor of philosophy at Pace University and member of the Ayn Rand Institute, to give a talk entitled “Religion vs. Morality.” Roughly three quarters of the lecture hall were filled with students and others who presumably came expecting to hear some sort of coherent and reasoned lecture about religious belief.

Instead, we were treated to a lengthy and tiresome tirade that began as a diatribe against everything related to “religion” and then mysteriously slipped into a groan-inducing praise-fest of Ayn Rand, the late American novelist and thinker whose exciting and brilliant fiction is often undercut by those who seize onto Rand’s philosophy of radical egoism and capitalism and accept it as revealed truth, effectively abandoning rational inquiry in the name of reason.

The talk on religion was incredibly offensive in its sweeping generalizations and inability to distinguish between different religions, different degrees of belief and interpretation, and different time periods. Bernstein essentially divided the world in two—those who follow the path of reason and those who follow the shortcut of faith and “mysticism.”

Never mind those who follow the path of reason and come to different conclusions than the so-called “objectivists” Bernstein represents. Never mind the possibility that spiritual and emotional knowledge could be as valid as mathematical or empirical knowledge. Never mind the existence of individuals whose faith inspires them to lead more fulfilling lives, or whose religious ethic makes them strive to improve their communities.

All of these, according to Bernstein, are as guilty as the “Islamists” in that they all equally abandon reason in favor of “religion,” the force allegedly responsible for the vast majority of mankind’s troubles.

Bernstein claimed that religion is an “attempt to answer all the questions,” a philosophical system based on “faith, not reason.” However, the behavior of the objectivists toward Ayn Rand is remarkably similar—they quote from Atlas Shrugged as though it were scripture of their own and angrily pronounce that every line of thought is “irrational” if it does not strictly follow their canon of Aristotle, Nietzsche, Rand, and the quasi-thinkers like Bernstein who followed.

Objectivism is, in too many unfortunate instances, treated as a cult by those who take it seriously and follow its principles as though they were axioms beyond debate. The Ayn Rand Institute, from which Bernstein hails, was split in two in the early ’90s because the radical ideologues there who consider themselves Rand’s intellectual heirs use litmus tests for their advocates and are more concerned with retaining the unchanged state of Rand’s ideas than with intellectual progress.

To call such tribalism “philosophy” and then to hold it up as a “rational” alternative to religion or free inquiry is inexcusable. Such an anti-philosophical attitude masquerading as reason ought to be universally rejected in favor of the open-ended, Socratic questioning that the big questions of human existence deserve.

I found Bernstein’s ranting particularly offensive not because I am religious, but because I have great respect for Rand as a writer and thinker. Atlas Shrugged is an amazing novel, and it influenced me more in high school than any other book—it taught me the virtues of self-confidence and optimism about the human condition.

In the end, Andrew Bernstein and those other objectivists who forget the spirit of philosophy, reason, and individual thought so beautifully expounded in Rand’s novels and replace it with an ethic of intolerance are little different than those they criticize for claiming to know the answers through religious revelation. By booting intellectual humility and inquiry from their idea of philosophy, they make a mockery out of the “reason” they so fervently advocate.